(This 900th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 22, 2008.)
This is quite a year for anniversaries. Among them the Town of Clarence is celebrating its 200th and 100 years ago that wonderful episode of Buffalo history took place when the Thomas Flyer won the only around the world auto race from New York to Paris -- driving west! On the way it was the first motor car to cross the United States. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Museum will sponsor a program about this race on August 4. (See too the website: www.thegreatautorace.com.)
This is also a celebratory year for two natural history organizations, one large, one small. Both the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and the East Aurora Bird Club this year celebrate their 50th anniversary.
The development of these two organizations has closely paralleled my own involvement in natural history so I am finding it fun to review some of their events along its way.
Historically the wetlands area, only part of which is now the Iroquois refuge, comprised almost forty square miles. Much of this was drained for farming but a series of fires destroyed much of the value of the original muck soil. As early as 1929, birders and hunters became interested in saving the area, then called the Alabama or Oak Orchard Swamps, to protect migrating and resident birds, especially ducks and geese. Two of the early proponents of this were Jim Savage, whose name is honored by a hall of the Buffalo Museum of Science, and Elon Eaton of Geneva, editor of the two volume Birds of New York.
I recall visiting the area each year in the early 1940s on Easter Sundays to observe the waterfowl and in midsummer to look for rare resident prothonotary warblers. Younger readers will have difficulty realizing that in those days Canada geese were uncommon birds appearing here only on migration.
Although federal officials were not yet interested, in the late 1930s New York initiated steps to save part of the area. World War II intervened and the purchase of two square miles for the Oak Orchard Game Management Area was only completed in 1947.
Only after eleven more years did the federal government change its mind. On May 19, 1958, the Oak Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was established with funds largely derived from duck stamps purchased almost exclusively by hunters. Only in 1964 would the refuge be renamed the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. In 1965 the refuge reached its current almost 16 square mile extent.
Eglets photographed by a mounted TV camera
Among the many significant activities at the refuge were the eagle and osprey hacking programs that assisted the return of these species after their extirpation from the area caused by the now outlawed pesticide DDT. Now both species nest there. Also the new Swallow Hollow Trail was completed with the support of the Friends of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge established in 2001.
The Swallow Hollow Trail Reopening in 2006
The East Aurora Bird Club was formed in 1958 by 25 birders who sought to extend the interest they had developed in local natural history courses taught by two of this area's finest leaders, Mabel James and Richard Rosche. Current club enrollment is about 35, but only two of those charter members, May and Sterling Ruhl, continue on the roster. Despite its name, club members are now drawn from all across western New York.
Although the club and its individual members have made many contributions to regional ornithological activities, in particular to East Aurora's Sinking Ponds sanctuary, its main function centers around its many field trips, a few to distant destinations but most local. They peaked this spring with eight in May.
I joined club members on an April visit to the Iroquois refuge. It was a pleasant experience for me as the group was very informal and welcoming. On that lovely spring morning our best bird was a stunning Eurasian wigeon that paddled quietly among the cattails near the Cayuga Pool overlook.
Clearly the outstanding quality of this club is its easy accessibility to newcomers: beginning birders are nurtured by the club's many experts. The club president is now Nancy Vigyikan and anyone interested in joining should contact her at 662-5803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
One last (but not final) anniversary. This is my 900th Buffalo News "Nature Watch" column.-- Gerry Rising